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My experience as a Reactive Dog Owner

When I got asked to go on an urgent video call with an adopter of the rescue I used to volunteer with, I didn’t think that 18 months later I’d be sat here talking about my experiences living with their dog.

After all, I had a family, my own dog that struggled with a bit of reactivity and the last thing I wanted was a dog so reactive that its adopters hadn’t been able to touch it in the two weeks it had been in the UK.

“It” was called Robbie, a 8 month old Romanian rescue street dog who had travelled to the UK from Romania just two weeks before. On arrival, the pet transport company couldn’t bring him out of the doggie bus on a lead. That was the first red flag. So they had to put him in a crate and carry him into the house, slip lead still attached inside the crate.

Then the problems started.

Robbie was clearly a very fearful, nervous dog who had just endured a gruelling 48 hours on the road surrounded by strange dogs and people (all things he reacted to) which would have been stressful for a well-rounded, confident dog – never mind a scared, reactive dog.

And to add to all that stress, his slip lead had now become attached to the top of the cage, so that every time he tried to move his body, he would drag the cage with him, making big banging, clanging noises, hitting the cage into the washing machine and knocking into his body. He couldn’t move.

Rudy hiding after first arriving
Rudy hiding next to his crate in his first home.

His adopter was very worried about him but was unsure of how to get him out of this situation. He was nervous and the adopter was worried he would bite her if she tried to remove the slip lead. Unfortunately, Robbie spent a stressful 24 hours like this until he chewed his way through his slip lead to release himself.

Although over the next two weeks Robbie settled more and was making tentative steps into the world, his adopter was nervous of him and couldn’t touch him. She was worried he would snap, as he would freeze and stare (I now think he would have been listening and sniffing as he’s hypervigilant, and does this freezing and listening to something odd in the distance.)

Robbie was also barking and growling at the husband and the family’s other dog, and this would escalate if he was with the female adopter, as if he were guarding her (again, now knowing Robbie, he does this here and I think it’s because he feels more confident with someone he knows so will bark more at the incoming trigger if he thinks he has a bit of ‘back up’ rather than guarding).

After two weeks in the home, the adopter felt she couldn’t continue with his adoption as she’d not been able to touch him in that time for fear of him reacting to her.

This is how I ended up on that video call, trying to help the situation. And when no backup place was available to cope with a dog like Robbie who was reacting to humans and dogs with fairly aggressive behaviour, I offered our empty stable…

I get involved…

I thought Robbie would come to me for a few weeks, then he’d go on his way to another home or to a rescue place. I was going to assess how challenging his behaviours were and with a bit of time and space, most dogs settle down, and I was naively confident that with some serious decompression time, he’d relax some of these reactive outbursts. If he was just a fearful dog, then that’s one thing and some take months (years!) to come around, but Robbie was reacting to everyone and everything.

In order to crate for the car journey to meet me for the handover, he was sedated. When I met his adopters in a car park halfway down the country, he was starting to come around from the sedation… We lifted him into my car, and I started the journey back home.

When I arrived home, the sedation had well and truly wore off. Me and my husband carried the crate out of the car and into the stable and Robbie was barking, snarling and biting at the crate where our hands were to get us. I wore welders gloves to avoid any bites through the crate bars.

We put him in the stable which had an armchair, dog bed and food and water – and most importantly was quiet and safe from any of the things he found scary in a house like noises, other dogs, strangers, children and general busy life.

I still remember the feeling of having to open the crate door to a dog that had been snarling and biting to get to me, and then walk away hoping he wouldn’t rush out and bite me as I left. But he didn’t, he just stayed curled up in his crate, terrified. He was just a terrified little dog, trying to save himself by any way he could think of. He was in panic mode.

The next few weeks

It quickly became apparent that Robbie had some deeper behavioural issues. He was very fearful and scared of the world so we gave him lots of time to decompress.

I also enlisted the help of a trusted rehab trainer who has lots of experience gently bringing round fearful dogs and dogs with serious previous aggression who have been put on court order to be put to sleep by police (that’s TT Canines who come to the park to do seminars from time to time).

At that point, there was no way I could keep Robbie (I had a young child and other dogs – two things that Robbie definitely didn’t like at that point) and the last thing I wanted was another dog with challenging behaviours – I had enough of that already with my other Romanian rescue who is lovely, but has a little lead reactivity!

The focus at that point was rehabilitating Robbie so he could go off to a new home eventually so we started a rehab program with him.

This involved getting him used to me and seeing me as a safe person and not a threat. Being fearful, barky and wary of people actually helps street dogs to survive. If someone wants to hurt you, then it makes no sense to run up to them happily with your tail wagging. It does make sense, however, to bark at them and scare them off.

But for Robbie to ‘survive’ over here in the UK, that behaviour needed to change if he was ever going to get a home. The worst case scenario was that he’d be sent back to live in a pen in Romania with no chance of ever getting another home, and because of his reactivity, he’d have to live in a pen alone from other dogs and would probably never come out of it again. The worst, worst case scenario was being put to sleep – as his aggression and reactivity was so severe to everyone that in the UK, it’s likely he’d be put to sleep by most rescues. (I love rescues, this isn’t a dig at them – but realistically most don’t have the ability, space or behavioural support to spend two years rehabilitating a dog displaying dangerous aggression).

The training begins

From the day Robbie arrived, the plan was that I’d take some tasty roasted chicken every hour or so and drop it in his kennel, and walk away. He didn’t need to come to me to get the chicken, he didn’t need to display any behaviour, I just dropped it and walked away and left him to eat it.

The aim of doing this was to associate me with chicken. I was basically making myself into a huge roast chicken! And by doing it regularly throughout the day, it gave us more opportunities to show Robbie I was a big roast chicken 😀

At that point, I couldn’t go into the stable. Robbie would bark if my husband approached, but would hide or watch me from afar so we didn’t push him at all. He had to know that that stable was his space and no one was going to invade it. He was safe.

Tentative steps forward

After a few days of the dropping chicken breast into his stable ‘game’, once Robbie wasn’t running away when I approached, I tentatively opened the stable door and sat on the floor quietly, throwing the chicken far away towards him. This meant he didn’t have to come forward to ‘scary me’, but gave him a bit of a chance to get used to me.

I did this same activity for days and after a few days, he would approach me and sniff, but you couldn’t reach out a hand otherwise he’d run away. A sniff is not an invitation to stroke.

We carried on the feeding by throwing him his food (very high value lovely food) in bits throughout the day. If Robbie was a fearful dog that had come to live with us for two weeks and was then moving on to his next home, I’d have just put his food down in a bowl and left him be. But we needed to see some change from Robbie for his own sake so that’s why we did the hand feeding / treat throwing for all his food. He didn’t need to do anything to get his food, we just spread out the feeding so he got used to seeing me as a person who comes and provides all this lovely stuff, and not the big bad wolf.

The first walk outside

Robbie by this point was approaching me more and more, and tolerating slight touches. He had been stuck in the stable for probably a week or so at this point so I used a slip lead to slip over his head (as I knew I couldn’t start messing around with collars and harnesses as I’d hardly touched him), and see if he wanted to explore outside of the stable. Once we realised it meant we were leaving the stable, Robbie was excited to get out and do some sniffing.

Looking back, I probably rushed this and he didn’t really need to go out into the yard but at the time I thought it was the right time. We didn’t go for a walk by any means, but let him sniff around the yard. I couldn’t let him off lead at this point as I doubt he’d have come back to us at all.

Coming out on the lead seemed to change something for Robbie and he was much friendlier once out on the lead, approaching me and being more waggy tailed.

We did these tentative little walks here and there and continued the hand feeding. When on his walk, I could stroke Robbie at this point (just short little strokes, not a fuss).

Me with Robbie – about a year after being with us.

But not so sure of the ‘HUSBAND’

Whilst Robbie was making great progress with me, he wasn’t tolerating my husband at all. My husband would sit in the door of the stable for hours throwing the chicken into the stable, but Robbie would just hide and wouldn’t come out for the chicken. Sometimes he barked and growled at him.

We tried my husband exclusively feeding him for days at a time, but it didn’t appear to change anything.

Over the next few months, Robbie’s aversion to my husband and my toddler son continued – and he would bark and lunge whenever he saw them when out on a lead. In his stable, he would mainly take himself off to hide behind his armchair.

We didn’t do much in those early months – walks were just in the yard away from where Robbie could see any strangers, and then lots of decompression time alone in the stable.

Meeting my dogs

At this time, I had my older Romanian rescue female, Alma, and George, a little working cocker spaniel puppy. After a few weeks, we opened Robbie’s stable up so that he had a meshed front on the outer stable that he could come up to if he wanted to watch us in the yard.

Whenever my dogs ever approached the mesh, Robbie would growl, snap and throw himself at the mesh. I’m sure he’d have attacked them with all his force if he could have.

In the end, it took six weeks of gradual introductions (not from Robbie arriving, but from the first time he saw them through the mesh which was probably a few weeks after first arriving) for them to meet carefully on parallel walks and get more comfortable with each other. They can now pass each other in the house and on lead, but I don’t let them play together. They did do at one point but had a few tiffs over guarding things like sheep poo so they’re separated mostly – separate but in view behind a babygate, for example.

At the beginning, I really thought they’d never integrate with each other based on how strongly Robbie reacted at the beginning, but they are safe separated by a babygate if Robby ever comes in the house.

The bite

After probably six months of being with me and living in the stable, Robbie still continued barking at my husband despite him becoming more comfortable with him being around. Robbie could see him passing in the yard and wouldn’t react.

One day I had Robbie on a long line in the farm yard and my husband walked past while we were doing some training. Robbie started barking at my husband and running forward and rushing back. I didn’t think he would do any more than that so I told my husband to just stay still while we talked, hoping Robbie would settle down and realise nothing bad was going to happen.

Robbie continued to run forward and back, and started nudging my husband on the leg with his nose.

After a few times of this, he ran forward and bit.

We were both shocked as we’d done so many gradual, gentle desensitisation work with the food and treats over the last six months, but clearly Robbie didn’t see it like that. After that, I kept Robbie away from my husband and didn’t risk a bite occurring again. It was a wake up call for me that I couldn’t assume that just by us showing Robbie that we were safe and making his world as pressure free as possible, that Robbie would interpret it like that. In his mind, my husband was still a threat.

The day of reckoning

By this point, it had been about 8 months and whilst Robbie had made a lot of progress in some ways, such as happily coming out on walks on the farm with me, meeting my dogs and reacting less to my husband and son from afar, in other ways, he hadn’t progressed a lot. If he saw a stranger pass the farm on one of our yard walks, he would be on his hind legs barking, snarling and lunging on the lead and my husband couldn’t approach him to take him on a walk as he’d just hide in his stable.

He would start barking and lunging at my husband and son on lead if they passed too close, or if they were doing something ‘odd’ like playing football 200 metres away.

Robbie was terrified of the inside of the house and all its sounds and smells – and because I had a young son and two other dogs, there was no way he could live inside with us.

I rang lots of rescues, sanctuaries and a behaviourist for advice about his future prospects (again, not for me as his owner as that was never the plan, I just agreed to emergency foster him), but to no avail. Nobody could help him, and the behaviourist recognised that it would be a very long time for him to come around to safely be rehomed and even then, it would have to be a very specific, controlled environment.

The Romanian rescue where he came from started making plans to bring him back to Romania when it was clear his options over in the UK were incredibly limited. We advertised for homes for him, but understandably, no single females with no friends or visitors who lived somewhere where they would agree never to walk him outside their home and have no other animals came forward!

The plans started forming for his return.

Doubts start to arise

I went to sit in the stable with Robbie and he came to sit with me for a fuss. I looked at this young dog who found the world so scary (if a bin was put in the wrong place outside, it could cause an outburst. Forget pumpkins at Halloween).

In 30 days, a dog transport bus destined for Romania would arrive at my farm and I’d have to force Robbie into a cage on the bus (because he wouldn’t go in willingly and would be lunging and barking at all the drivers and handlers). He would be trying to get back out to stay with me as the only person in the world he now knew or trusted. I thought about what I’d feel on that day. And came back in the house to speak to my husband – the same husband who had never wanted to foster an aggressive Romanian dog in the first place!

I knew I couldn’t send him back. But I also knew we couldn’t manage an aggressive, reactive, fearful dog with a young family and other animals in the house.

Robbie’s options in Romania would be a pen he likely never left again because of his reactivity to other dogs (in Romania, they hinted that ‘other dogs don’t like him’). For a young dog, this seemed like such a sad long existence.

We instead decided to build a kennel and run at our farm where Robbie could live, and he’d come out for a few walks a day and see us pottering about. This seemed infinitely better than the other option of the stressful trip back to Romania and living alone with no walks. It’s also peaceful here, whereas his rescue place in Romania would have lots of other dogs nearby.

We spent a small fortune on a proper kennel run and reconfigured a shed we had, insulating it and building a smaller inner kennel bed area that was more insulated with heat reflective covering on all sides. We’d learnt in the stable that introducing anything strange wasn’t possible – as I’d once put a lamb heat lamp into his stable and he hadn’t been able to sleep because of worry about the heat lamp. The same happened when I tried putting a coat on him on a particularly cold night.

Reactive dog owner experience

His new home

We eventually decided to keep Robbie forever, albeit in a very managed, controlled way. It’s not the home that we might want for our own dogs, but Robbie’s situation meant we all had to compromise, including Robbie. My own life has been very split as I need to do everything with Robbie completely separately, it was like having two lives. And at times, it’s been very emotionally wearing – struggling with his reactivity and not being able to integrate his daily walks and time into normal family time. If we all go out for a long day out with our own dogs, however tired you are when you get home, you need to walk Robbie and spend some time with him.

We also decided his name needed to change. My husband is called Rob, so having a dog called practically the same name got confusing! We decided with a new home, came a new name: Rudy.

Today

Rudy has now been with us for over 18 months and has become part of all our lives. Over time, he is much more comfortable with my husband and will tolerate him in certain situations.

Rudy now comes into the house alot, behind a babygate in the utility room where he can see us. He goes back into his kennel at night as he finds it hard to fully relax in the house – but again, it’s a compromise as he wants to see us all more, but sometimes can’t handle it. In particularly cold spells, he comes in overnight, but I can tell he is happier in his kennel alot of the time.

I can go through it in another post, but he’s much happier with my son and gets excited to see him through the babygate and will go to my husband for a fuss and stroke willingly – but still has barking outbursts at him at times. Sometimes there’s seemingly no trigger for these outbursts – but if someone is going to get it, it’s my husband!

What hasn’t changed much is Rudy’s reactivity to strangers or other dogs – if he can even see a dog, however far away, he will react pretty strongly, and we’ve tried lots of things, and are still trying lots of things to help improve this. He can tolerate a few other people like my neighbour from afar after some of the work we’ve been doing.

Expectations

What has changed though, is my expectations. I’m not trying to reach some point where Rudy is a different dog. He will always be the same dog, but if we can turn down the intensity of some of those reactions a little, then it makes all of our lives easier, including Rudy.

So this blog will be a story about our journey, what has worked, what hasn’t worked – and just what it’s like owning a reactive dog – because it can really be tiring and difficult at times.

But the good news is, Rudy is still with us – happy and relaxed in his new home.

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